Articulating Work Life Balance: Perspectives of Women Returners to STEM

Herman, Clem and Hodgson, Barbara (2008). Articulating Work Life Balance: Perspectives of Women Returners to STEM. In: International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES 14): 'A Changing world: new opportunities for women engineers and scientists', 15-18 Jul 2008, Lille, France.



This paper explores work life balance issues facing women returning to work in STEM after a career break, based on the experiences of participants in an online course at the UK Open University. The course provided a series of personal development planning activities, and required them to focus on work life balance issues, identifying the factors they would need to consider in order to successfully return to work.

The term Work Life Balance has entered everyday discourse as a way to articulate the conflicts and dilemmas raised by changing work patterns and life choices. For those who are contemplating returning to paid work after a period away from the labour market, the achievement of a balance between the demands of their working life and those of their other commitments becomes of paramount concern. Considerations are not just practical but also emotional and raise fundamental issues about women’s roles as well as personal priorities and ambitions

Research suggests that there are particular problems within STEM sectors for women returners such as the lack of flexible and part time working opportunities, and long hours culture. Other studies have indicated that women make choices about working in these sectors based on evaluation of their work life balance options, and putting family considerations first, often jeopardise their future career progression

There is an expectation of mobility for most scientific careers, particularly academic careers. Young single women are just as likely to take up these opportunities abroad as their male colleagues, but once women have partners and children they are less likely to do this. Moreover women scientists are more likely than men to be in relationships with other scientists whose careers will also require mobility – in such cases it is more often the women in these “dual career” relationships who decide not to take up opportunities that require moving abroad, especially when there are children involved. These women are thus more likely to follow their male partners in ‘tied migration’ than vice versa.

Not all returners have had career breaks for raising children - others take time to study, to travel, to look after elderly parents, or due to their own ill heath. However, the overwhelming majority of women returners in our study had taken breaks in order to do ‘family work’ prioritising this over career progression. Choices are not made in a vacuum but in the context of patriarchal societal values, and in the case of the STEM industries, within the context of masculine work ethics and cultural norms. Women returners, not only face practical issues and constraints when they decide to return to work, but they are also faced with a change in their identities and orientation towards work and motherhood

In order to gain a more in depth understanding of how women perceive and deal with the range of issues loosely labelled under the heading ‘work life balance’ we analysed the women’s responses to this activity and their views on Work Life Balance in the context of returning to their STEM careers. Qualitative data came from online conferences contributions, telephone interviews and online surveys carried out after the completion of the course. This revealed a similar set of outcomes to those found in previous studies of women returners including significant levels of underemployment. Of those who had found employment after the course, 46% were working at a lower level than before their career break and just under half were not working in a STEM occupation i.e. they had gone back to work in another sector.

Some of the key issues raised were related to mobility. This included wanting to work locally in order to be able to take children to and from school etc. Another recurring issue was the effect of ‘tied migration’– several had moved abroad to follow their partner/husbands job and consequently had given up their own career or at least put it on hold, taking other lower paid and lower skilled employment. Many of the women, especially those living in rural areas, had searched for jobs in their locality but found there were no suitable employment opportunities at the level they required in their sector but expressed unwillingness to uproot their families in order to progress their own careers.

Finding suitable childcare was not surprisingly a major consideration for many of the women. However this was not just a case of finding a nursery place or a childminder/babysitter for a pre-school child. For many of them these issues stretched out for several years with different considerations as children grew older.

Some of the women articulated clearly the identity transition that they were facing and the need to embark on a process of change. Women who have taken career breaks (and who have partners/husbands and/or dependent children) are faced with having to make changes not only to their own lives but also with the impact that their changes will have on those around them. Even when there is a strong economic imperative, many of the women find this a difficult transition. There were a few exceptions where men were taking on main responsibility for childcare but despite their high level qualifications and potential for career success, gender roles and expectations are still strongly entrenched even among women without dependent children.

The development of a public discourse around work life balance has provided more awareness of the need for a range of different and flexible working patterns. Indeed recent legislation in the UK has obliged employers to offer flexible working for those with dependent children. However it remains to be seen to what extent these measures can improve the opportunities of women returning to STEM careers without a fundamental change to both the working cultures and the gendered division of responsibility for family care. The lived experiences of women returners facing transition in their roles and identities, can offer a valuable insight into precisely these issues

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